Gaelic revival

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Television is helping to nurture the Scottish language, writes Seonag Mackinnon.

Television and education are the two villains of the piece in the decline of Scottish Gaelic over the last century, according to new research from Strathclyde University. But ironically both are now helping save the language from extinction.

The 1872 Compulsory Education Act in Scotland failed to acknowledge the existence of what was the first and only language for many in the Highlands and Islands. Children heard only English in classrooms and were punished for speaking their native tongue. Over the next 50 years, the Gaelic-speaking population dropped from more than 250,000 (11 per cent of the population) to 159,000.

Depopulation also had a huge impact but the coup de grace has been delivered over the past 30 years by television coming into the heart of every home, with its glossy presentation in English of all aspects of the world. There are now fewer than 70,000 Gaelic speakers, 1.4 per cent of the Scottish population. The language is an endangered species.

Cue the cavalry in the form of Gaelic activists - and an enlightened regime at the Scottish Office which took everyone by surprise when it agreed to allocate cash for Gaelic-medium education schools (currently Pounds 1.9 million a year) and some Pounds 9 million a year to Gaelic broadcasting from 1992.

More than 50 state primary schools now use Gaelic to teach subjects across the curriculum. The aim is to ensure that their 1,600 pupils leave with broadly equal competence in Gaelic and English. Nine secondaries also offer a Gaelic education to 180 children and 28 offer Standard Grade Gaelic, although the Secretary of State for Scotland has created recent controversy by deciding against a further expansion of Gaelic medium education in secondary schools.

Courtesy of cash from the Government-funded Gaelic Television Committee, Channel 4 has for the past four years been commissioning programmes on behalf of itself and ITV. This autumn it has broadcast three series, two aimed at the crucial immersion stage in Primary 1 and 2, Caraidean (Friends) and Cluiche Ceol's Canan (Playing Music and Language) and a third aimed at early secondary (Co Sinn is Carson? - A Changing Identity?). Although broadcast south of the border and watched by the odd channel zapper, there is no take up by English schools.

The BBC's involvement in Gaelic broadcasting dates back to the mid-1970s and is currently aimed mainly at schools where everything is taught through Gaelic. A favoured economical method of programme makers is versioning, whereby an English and a Gaelic version of the same programme are recorded, often using a bilingual presenter.

Commenting on the 120 hours radio and 210 hours TV output to primary schools over the past five years, which include series like Anns a'Bhad (On the Spot) for early stages and Tuig! (Get it!), a popular environmental series for middle stages, BBC education officer Donald Gunn says he would like to see many more programmes for the Gaelic-medium teachers. They are often isolated, either geographically or within a school where other teachers use English. "They often use a general output Gaelic programme - not tailored to the detailed requirements of the curriculum and with no back-up materials, because they have nothing else," he says.

An obvious target for the BBC, which funds almost all of its Gaelic education programmes internally, is the Gaelic Television Committee's Pounds 9 million crock of gold. The committee is said to be reconsidering how much should be channelled towards general output such as the fledgeling soap opera Machair, which meets with mixed reviews.

Head of the committee John Angus MacKay puts the case for populism: "It has helped the Gaelic movement in general and the development of other organisations, like playgroups, by consolidating the message that Gaelic is worthwhile and is part of the modern world."

Calling for greater co-operation between the key players in Gaelic broadcasting and for more education programmes, Matthew MacIver, chair of the Gaelic Committee of the Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland, says the language is still in a fragile state. "I am optimistic, but there is so much work still to be done."

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